2019 Seattle Mariners Season Preview: Can rookie Yusei Kikuchi emerge as the new ace?

Yahoo Sports Staff

Editor’s note: Baseball is back and Yahoo Sports is previewing all 30 teams over the next month, starting today with the Baltimore Orioles. This year’s previews will focus on fantasy and reality, as our MLB news staff and our fantasy baseball crew come together to assess each team before opening day.

Robinson Cano?


James Paxton?


SURPRISE, AZ - MARCH 02:  Yusei Kikuchi(R) #18 of the Seattle Mariners smiles during the spring training game against the Kansas City Royals on March 2, 2019 in Surprise, Arizona.  (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)
Rookie pitcher Yusei Kikuchi should be treated as a top-40 fantasy starter. (Getty Images)

Nelson Cruz, Edwin Díaz, Jean Segura and Mike Zunino?

Gone, gone, gone and gone.

Even Félix Hernández is a shell of his former self.

The 2019 Seattle Mariners aren’t the Mariners we’re used to seeing. The Mariners dove into a rebuild pretty quickly, knowing they couldn’t compete with the Houston Astros in the AL West and their farm system wasn’t too deep.

General manager Jerry Dipoto pulled off nine trades in the offseason, transforming his roster once again. This time, however, the team’s moves themselves might have actually been more interesting than their immediate dividends on the field.

The Mariners still have a productive players and fascinating fantasy options worth your time (hello, Mitch Haniger, Edwin Encarnacion and Yusei Kikuchi), but it’s hard to imagine the reality of Seattle’s situation producing a competitor in the AL West. - Mike Oz

Mariners’ offseason grade

We know about all the departures, but let’s look at the arrivals. After all the wheelin’ and dealin’, the Mariners have added Edwin Encarnacion, Jay Bruce, Domingo Santana, Anthony Swarzak, Mallex Smith and Omar Narváez. They should figure into the big-league lineup this year. Youngsters like Shed Long, Justus Sheffield and J.P. Crawford will help the farm system.

Outside of the trades, the Mariners signed Hunter Strickland to anchor their bullpen and Tim Beckham to help in the infield. The biggest acquisition, though, is Kikuchi, the Japanese import who you’ll read more about shortly. He could even be in line to start opening day for the Mariners, since they’ve already said it won’t be King Felix.

Our grade: C+ - It might not produce C+ results on the field this year, but the Mariners did well to get younger. They still have Encarnacion, who they can deal to a competitor. Kikuchi seems legit so far. And they kept us entertained during a slow offseason. That counts too. - Mike Oz

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Seattle’s projected lineup and pitching staff

The Seattle Mariners' projected lineup for 2019. (Yahoo Sports)
The Seattle Mariners' projected lineup for 2019. (Yahoo Sports)

Who is Seattle’s fantasy buy?

Steals are down across the league and becoming harder for fantasy owners to acquire, so Mallex Smith is especially coveted now that he’s the Mariners’ regular center fielder likely batting atop their order. He swiped 40 bags over just 480 at bats last season, and while Smith won’t provide any power, unlike other speedsters he won’t kill your BA (he hit .296 with a .367 OBP last year). Smith stole 64 bases over just 110 games as a 20-year-old in the minors and has just recently been given the chance to be a full-time big league player, so he can be a true difference maker in the SB category. - Dalton Del Don

What is the Mariners’ biggest fantasy question?

What to expect from Yusei Kikuchi? The newest import is coming over with a career 2.81 ERA in Japan, although last year’s numbers fell a bit while he battled some shoulder soreness. Projection systems are all over the place with him, as THE BAT calls for a 3.95 ERA and 1.25 WHIP while Steamer shoots out a much bleaker 4.51 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. Both project strong K rates. There’s legit No. 2 starter stuff here and in one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball, Kikuchi should be treated as a top-40 fantasy starter, even if his workload will be somewhat limited. - Dalton Del Don

Mariners prospect to watch

Pitcher Justus Sheffield is the main draw here. After coming over from the New York Yankees in the James Paxton deal, Sheffield should get some opportunities to start in Seattle during the season. He got a brief taste of the majors pitching out the Yankees bullpen 2018. He may ultimately wind up in the bullpen, but Sheffield should at least get an extended run as a starter on a Mariners team looking for future talent. - Chris Cwik

PEORIA, AZ - FEBRUARY 25: Domingo Santana #16 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates with Edwin Encarnacion #10 after hitting a home run during a Spring Training game against the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, February 25, 2019 at Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, Arizona.  (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Domingo Santana and Edwin Encarnacion are two new bats in the Mariners lineup. (Getty Images)

Things that MUST go right for Seattle

1. New ace emerges: It's been awhile since the Mariners have entered a season without a true ace. Félix Hernández held that mantle for over a decade, but has fallen into a steep decline. He bottomed out last season, posting a 5.55 ERA while striking out batters at a career-worst rate. James Paxton stepped into the ace role, but general manager Jerry Dipoto began his offseason rebuild by shipping "Big Maple" to the Yankees. That leaves a big opening that the team hopes Japanese rookie Yusei Kikuchi will eventually fill. It might not happen right away this season, but the Mariners need positive signs that it will.

2. Veterans play well: This is two-fold for Seattle. With a much younger roster, the Mariners will need veterans like Dee Gordon, Jay Bruce and Kyle Seager to play well this season if they have any hopes of being competitive. The other side of that is the reality that making the postseason will be a long shot regardless, so they'll need those veterans pumping up their value in case of a trade.

3. Bullpen comes together: After losing the core of their bullpen (Edwin Diaz, Alex Colome, Juan Nicasio and Zach Duke) during the offseason, the Mariners relief options do not look great on paper. Hunter Strickland is probably the most established pitcher, which should give him the inside track to nail down the closer's role. But he's still more famous for his run-ins with Bryce Harper than his actual pitching. They've also added Anthony Swarzak. After that, the cupboard is bare, meaning they're going to need a lot of help from unproven sources. - Mark Townsend

If this team had a walk-up song, what would it be?

If there’s one thing that’s marked the Jerry Dipoto era in Seattle, it’s trades. Dipoto is a deal-maker extraordinaire. During the winter meetings, he even completed a deal from his hospital bed after being admitted because he didn’t feel well.

This offseason was perhaps his boldest yet, so the Mariners walk-up song is definitely “Trade It All” by Fabolous, Jagged Edge and P. Diddy. - Mike Oz

More 2019 MLB Previews From Yahoo Sports

Baltimore | Miami | Kansas City | Detroit | Texas | Toronto | San Diego

Chicago (AL) | Minnesota | San Francisco | Pittsburgh | Arizona | Seattle

Cincinnati | Los Angeles (AL) | Oakland | Tampa Bay | Colorado | Cleveland

New York (NL) | St. Louis | Atlanta | Philadelphia | Milwaukee | Chicago

Washington | Los Angeles (NL) | Houston | New York (AL) | Boston